by George Clifford
General Convention’s approval of marriage equality appears to have attempted a “big tent” approach to the problem. However, Resolutions A036 and A054 may have also sown the seeds for an unintentional harvest of schism.
Allowing individual members of the clergy to refuse to officiate at any marriage for any reason continues longstanding practice. The resolutions appropriately expand this provision to include all couples who request the cleric to officiate at their marriage.
This is not a problem. Some clerics and even some congregations will persist for decades in refusing to accept marriage equality. Neither the cleric nor a congregation comprised of similar minded people should be penalized. Indeed, a few clerics and scattered congregations still refuse to utilize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). With the approval of the cognizant diocesan bishop, this remnant clings to the 1928 BCP. Those unable to live in today’s Episcopal Church departed the fold long ago. Similarly, those clergy and laity unable to exist in a Church that supports marriage equality mostly departed years ago.
However, allowing a diocesan bishop to prohibit same sex marriage rites within the bishop’s diocese can become divisive and potentially lead to schism. In those relatively few dioceses in which the incumbent diocesan bishop will refuse to authorize rites for same sex marriage, opposition to marriage equality can easily harden. Laity supportive of marriage equality may opt to leave an Episcopal congregation to attend a congregation of a denomination that practices marriage equality. Clergy committed to marriage equality will likely regard the diocese’s exclusionary stance as a negative factor in the process of deciding whether to accept a new call. Conversely, clergy and laity opposed to marriage equality may find the diocese’s position attractive.
In time, among some of this handful of dioceses, one’s attitude about marriage equality may even become a litmus test for candidates in electing a new diocesan bishop, hiring key diocesan staff, screening ordinands, and filling vacant parishes. A similar polarization has occurred within the Church of England over the ordination of women, threatening its unity. Unlike the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is much less securely bound together.
Furthermore, some US dioceses cover large geographical areas. Pointing couples whose marriage a diocese refuses to celebrate to another diocese can create an illusion of having met people’s needs when such recommendations may actually be rather impractical, especially for couples of limited financial means. Access to the Church’s rites should not be contingent upon one’s geography or wealth.
General Convention authorizing diocesan bishops to opt out of marriage equality should be only an interim measure. Soon – very soon – every diocese needs to support marriage equality. A diocesan bishop who objects – like any member of the clergy – should be able to opt out, but personally and not for his/her diocese. (Interestingly, none of the eighteen bishops who signed the minority report were female! Perhaps bishops who are women tend to be more inclusive or perhaps they know personally the pain of being excluded.)
The 2018 General Convention should modify the canons to authorize a diocesan to delegate to another bishop (e.g., a suffragan, assisting bishop, or diocesan in an adjoining diocese) any personal involvement in same sex marriages (e.g., approval of remarriage of divorced persons). This provision would honor theological diversity without imposing what many persons will perceive as bigotry on others, avoids the potential for honoring diversity hardening into a litmus test that eventually raises the specter of schism, and prioritizes caring for God’s people above respecting sensitive episcopal consciences.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.